Children who spend more time engaged in adventurous play involving an element of risk have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to research found the effect was more pronounced among children from lower income families.
The study set out to test theories that adventurous play – climbing trees, riding bikes, jumping from high surfaces, or playing out of adult sight – offers learning opportunities that help build resilience in children and protect mental health.
Researchers surveyed two samples of parents of children aged five to 11 – 427 parents in Northern Ireland and a nationally representative group of 1,919 parents in England, Wales and Scotland – and asked them about their child’s play, their mental health before the pandemic and their mood during the first Covid-19 lockdown.
They found that children who spent more time playing adventurously outside had fewer “internalising problems”, which are characterised as anxiety and depression, and they were also more positive during the first lockdown.
The effects were relatively small but consistent after factoring in a range of demographic variables, including a child’s sex and age, as well as parents’ employment status and mental health. The larger sample also found the association was stronger for children from lower income families than their peers from wealthier backgrounds.
As a result, the study’s authors are calling on planning authorities to ensure that every child, particularly those from disadvantaged families who cannot pay for additional, organised adventure experiences, has free access to a safe space for adventurous outdoor play close to their home.
The study, Child’s Play: Examining the Association Between Time Spent Playing and Child Mental Health, published in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development, comes at a time when child psychologists are worried that children have less opportunity for adventurous play out of sight of adults, that Covid has limited play, and playgrounds have become sanitised amid fears of litigation.
Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Exeter, who led the study, said: “We’re more concerned than ever about children’s mental health, and our findings highlight that we might be able to help protect children’s mental health by ensuring they have plentiful opportunities for adventurous play.
“This is really positive because play is free, instinctive and rewarding for children, available to everyone, and doesn’t require special skills. We now urgently need to invest in and protect natural spaces, well-designed parks and adventure playgrounds, to support the mental health of our children.”
In July, one of Europe’s biggest indoor children’s play centres is set to open in Wetherby in Yorkshire, promising a new and challenging experience for children. The £3.5m Playhive at Stockeld Park features a series of themed and interconnected adventure zones in a doughnut-shaped building with a 10-metre (33ft) tower at its centre.
Its creator, Peter Grant, said: “We didn’t want the usual soft play scene, but one that truly inspires imaginations. The idea is children of all ages can do most of it, but some of it is more challenging for older children.”
Belinda Kirk, explorer, mother and author of the Adventure Revolution: The life changing power of choosing challenge, welcomed the University of Exeter findings on adventurous play. “There is this incredibly normal instinct to want to protect your children, which I have in bountiful amounts.
“But we live in a world that is so obsessed with physical safety that we’ve forgotten to balance it with mental health. We’ve prioritised physical safety or physical health over mental health, so we’re not letting kids fall down and learn to pick themselves up again, and therefore build up coping mechanisms and resilience.”
Previous research found that primary-age children are not allowed to play outside on their own until they are two years older than their parents’ generation. While their parents were allowed to play outside unsupervised by the age of nine on average, today’s children are 11 by the time they reach the same milestone.
Family adventures for free
1. Go for a walk in the dark. Take a torch to make it more fun. “Doing it at night makes it all the more exciting, because even environments you know, like a footpath near your house, feel different. It smells different, the wildlife’s different, it’s a proper adventure,” says Kirk.
2. Go for a night cycle.
3. Explore woods alone or with a friend.
4. Camp out overnight. “Sleeping out under the stars is a hugely exciting thing,” says Kirk. “Even just in your back garden.”
5. Go swimming or paddling in a river or lake.
6. Go geocaching. It’s a treasure hunt. Just get the app, create an account, choose your geocache from the millions available – there are more than 8,000 in London alone – and off you go.
7. Climb a mountain (or a local hill). “Summiting your first mountain is a wonderful thing to do,” says Kirk. “It could be Snowden, with your parents, or a hill near your house.”
8. Try out new skills on a skateboard, roller skates or a bike.
9. Create an obstacle course inside or outside.
10. Do a source-to-sea river walk. Choose from the 220-mile long Severn Way from mid-Wales to the Bristol Channel for the very ambitious, the 71-mile Ribble Way, the 42-mile Sussex Ouse Valley Way and others.